The ongoing effort by members of the Republican Party to get Donald Trump to swear off the possibility of a third party run for president if he fails to secure the GOP nomination got serious on Tuesday, when the state party apparatus in the key early voting state South Carolina confirmed it had made participation in its primary election contingent on candidates promising to support the party and its eventual nominee.
The South Carolina Republican Party on Tuesday released the filing form that all candidates must submit in order to have their names on the ballot next year, and it contains the key phrase: “I hereby affirm that I generally believe in and intend to support the nominees and platform of the Republican Party in the November 8, 2016 general election.”
The South Carolina Republicans, in case the wording left any doubt, issued a statement that said, in part, “[T]he South Carolina Republican Party’s 2016 Presidential Primary filing form includes a party pledge to not run as a third party candidate in November 2016. South Carolina candidates for state and local office must sign a similar pledge.”
It added, “Thus far, four candidates have signed the pledge and filed for South Carolina’s February 20, 2016 Republican Primary.” It named Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson as candidates who have already agreed to the pledge. The party also said that it expects Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to do so within the next week.
The announcement came on the same day that Monmouth University released a poll of South Carolina voters that found Trump far ahead of all his competitors with 30 percent of the vote.
The billionaire former reality television star celebrated by tweaking Graham on Twitter over his comparatively weak showing.
Congrats @LindseyGrahamSC. You just got 4 points in your home state of SC—far better than zero nationally. You’re only 26 pts behind me.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2015
(For his part, Graham replied with a full-scale verbal assault on Trump’s policies in a CNN interview, calling him, among other things, a “complete idiot” on Middle East policy, and adding a promise: “Come to South Carolina and I'll beat his brains out.”)
The thing is, it’s not really clear how effective a measure like the South Carolina GOP’s move will be in actually getting Trump to promise loyalty to the GOP.
In the first presidential debate, moderated by hosts from Republican-friendly Fox News, the very first question asked of the candidates was whether the candidates would promise not to run on a third-party ticket if they lost the primary. It was a naked assault on Trump, who was the only man (they were all men) on the stage who 1) had flirted with the possibility and 2) could hope to pull it off.
Trump adamantly refused, the effort fizzled, and the billionaire went on to score ever-larger victories in early polls.
Additionally, it’s not at all clear how binding such a pledge will be on candidates who sign it. Despite the South Carolina GOP’s assertion that the document amounts to a “pledge to not run as a third party candidate,” the wording is really quite squishy in its reference to something candidates “generally believe” and “intend” at the time they file the form.
Trump also has the option of a write-in candidacy. His massive name-recognition, current popularity and ability to command media coverage offer him the ability to defy the state party in a way none of his competitors could even consider.
Trump has until the end of September to make a decision about whether or not to sign the South Carolina filing form. But Trump isn’t a man given to lengthy consideration of his options. It seems safe to expect an answer to the implied question from the South Carolina GOP in the very near future.